Doubt and Scripture


This blog post was published on Wednesday 30 May 2018.

I listened this morning to a podcast interview with Christian Hofreiter on Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide. It is well worth a full listen, it’s a challenging topic and Christian has some good insights from church history on how we might approach it.

There are two things Christian said that are in the background of this issue which I found really helpful – and they are important for other difficult questions of ethics and doctrine as well. (The question of OT genocide is one I would like to return to.)

Doubt

In a ‘quick-fire’ section Christian is asked what he thinks about doubt:

Doubt is essential because without doubt we would very quickly become full of pride, we would lack empathy, and we would almost certainly not only be wrong but remain wrong, in many of our convictions.

I find this really helpful. Here Christian is not talking about the same thing as James (1.6, which is describing being ‘double-minded’ or ‘double-souled’, in two minds about the foundation of faith).

No, here Christian is talking about the humility we must have when reading Scripture, understanding or describing our faith: although Scripture is not wrong, our interpretation and understanding can be (and in fact is) imperfect. Voltaire said it like this: ‘doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one’.

We must be willing to listen to the way other people read the Bible, and that even deeply-held convictions about our faith might not be entirely accurate or true. We must always be quick to learn and slow to teach.

The solid ground of faith is not what we might say or think, but the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. That, we stand secure on. The rest we need to be humble about. (As an aside, that doesn’t mean everything is up for question, but more that our understanding of core Christian doctrines – Trinity, atonement, salvation – can always be improved or sharpened by listening to others. We may learn something we are missing, or discover a different emphasis, or that we are placing too much weight on one particular area.)

Scripture

All of which leads neatly to the next, and longer, quotation. In the conversation about different ways of understanding the difficult Scriptures in Deuteronomy and Joshua, where God appears to command genocide, Christian acknowledged different ways of handling the Bible.

Marcion famously posited two distinct gods, one bloodthirsty and angry (Old Testament) and one loving and peaceful (New Testament). (I do realise that is a gross oversimplification.) While it’s unlikely many Christians would actually admit to believing that today, I would argue that functionally that is the way a huge number of Christians treat the Old Testament. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me they don’t ‘do’ the Old Testament because they don’t recognise God in there.

Against such heresy Augustine argued with various people, including a Manichean bishop, as Christian summarises here:

You read the Bible in such a way as to remove all authority from the heart of the Scriptures, and to make each person his own authority for what he approves or disapproves of in any Scripture. That is, each person is not subject to the authority of the Scriptures for his faith, but subjects the Scriptures to himself – with the result not that something is pleasing to him because it is written in a lofty authority, but that it seems correctly written because it has pleased him ...

Whatever we don’t like or what the zeitgeist doesn’t like we discard, and whatever we personally like or the zeitgeist likes we embrace – I think that is a danger and I think Augustine was very aware of that kind of danger, and so he pushes very far the other way. But I think we can certainly learn from that, and should learn from it.

Augustine’s answer to the problem was what we call divine command theory: whatever is good is good because God says it is good. Therefore if Joshua had wiped out the Canaanites without the command of God it would have been sinful, but because God commanded it, that made it not sinful but good, to be obeying God’s good command.

As Christian acknowledges this cannot be the only argument we employ to talk about the issue of Old Testament genocide, but it does stand up philosophically, even if it is not existentially satisfying.

Whether we like where Augustine takes his understanding of Scripture or not, his incisive description of the way people put themselves in authority over the Bible is as relevant today as it was 1500 years ago. When talking about ethics – particularly sexuality in the Church of England – how often is Scripture dismissed or twisted when what it says doesn’t match up to modern sensibilities?

Thank you Christian for an excellent interview – I only wish I could afford your book!